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Charlotte Amalie
Tuesday, May 17, 2022
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Chief Howell Tells Rotarians About Fighting Crime

Crime statistics in the Virgin Islands are down, but St. Croix Police Chief Christopher Howell knows that that’s just the start.

Thursday Howell addressed crime fighting in the territory with the Rotary Club of St. Croix, what’s been accomplished and what needs to be done. It’s a talk he’s delivered before but one he doesn’t tire of sharing.

"The last three years crime is down in the territory," he said. And he credits a theory called the Broken Window theory for that decline.

Howell has had the opportunity to study the theory where it was born – New York City. From the 1950s to 1993, the city’s crime rate edged upward every year. Then the police introduced the Broken Window Theory, and saw an immediate decline. Today the city’s crime rate is the same as it was in 1964.

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The basis of the theory is that if an empty building gets a window broken and the damage is allowed to remain, then it’s more likely further vandalism will occur. But if the damage is repaired immediately, the likelihood of further damage declines.

The same applies to law enforcement, Howell said. Cracking down on any violation, no matter how apparently trivial, sends a message that "we don’t tolerate crime at any level."

On a trip to New York he saw examples of how that works. In the housing projects, doors to the roof are unlocked for safety reasons, but the roof is off limits. People used to abuse the system, but the housing authority installed cameras that are triggered by the door opening. Anyone caught on film going onto the roof can be sent to jail for 20 days.

Similarly, a train car hit by graffiti is immediately taken out of service and not returned until it is cleaned of paint. The graffiti artists are never given the satisfaction of seeing their work rolling around the city on a train.

Transferring that philosophy to St. Croix has not made everyone happy, Howell said. People arrested for simple possession of marijuana can’t believe they’re going to jail for such a minor offense. But, whether a person thinks it’s trivial or not is immaterial. It’s against the law, and allowing it to go unpunished when observed sends the message that some laws are OK to violate.

Now people are aware that any violation is liable to send the offender to jail.

Howell also told the story of the Lorraine Village housing community, where residents were reporting shots fired almost every night. Howell toured the community with members of the Special Ops unit, interviewing residents and asking what they thought the problems were.

Almost all pointed t the densely overgrown property adjacent to the community as the biggest problem. The next day Howell had bulldozers from Public Works out clearing the area. The police built relationships in the community and people are far more likely to report crime now. Howell also said by interviewing the residents first, it allowed them to take ownership of the solution.

The results have been impressive. Following up months after the cleanup, he asked residents when the last time they heard gunshots at night. They couldn’t remember.

Howell also told of the success of the saturation patrols program, in which the police hit the streets of an area in large numbers.

But these programs do come with a cost, he acknowledged. The prosecutor’s office and the courts are suddenly hit with a large influx of relatively minor cases, and don’t have the resources to handle them.

While the crime rate is down, Howell, said, there’s a lot more that needs to be done, and the chief talked excitedly about a new program that will give local police access to recently retired military gear. Not tanks, he told the Rotarians with a laugh, but almost everything else, from weapons and radios to file cabinets.

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Crime statistics in the Virgin Islands are down, but St. Croix Police Chief Christopher Howell knows that that's just the start.

Thursday Howell addressed crime fighting in the territory with the Rotary Club of St. Croix, what's been accomplished and what needs to be done. It's a talk he's delivered before but one he doesn't tire of sharing.

"The last three years crime is down in the territory," he said. And he credits a theory called the Broken Window theory for that decline.

Howell has had the opportunity to study the theory where it was born – New York City. From the 1950s to 1993, the city's crime rate edged upward every year. Then the police introduced the Broken Window Theory, and saw an immediate decline. Today the city's crime rate is the same as it was in 1964.

The basis of the theory is that if an empty building gets a window broken and the damage is allowed to remain, then it's more likely further vandalism will occur. But if the damage is repaired immediately, the likelihood of further damage declines.

The same applies to law enforcement, Howell said. Cracking down on any violation, no matter how apparently trivial, sends a message that "we don't tolerate crime at any level."

On a trip to New York he saw examples of how that works. In the housing projects, doors to the roof are unlocked for safety reasons, but the roof is off limits. People used to abuse the system, but the housing authority installed cameras that are triggered by the door opening. Anyone caught on film going onto the roof can be sent to jail for 20 days.

Similarly, a train car hit by graffiti is immediately taken out of service and not returned until it is cleaned of paint. The graffiti artists are never given the satisfaction of seeing their work rolling around the city on a train.

Transferring that philosophy to St. Croix has not made everyone happy, Howell said. People arrested for simple possession of marijuana can't believe they're going to jail for such a minor offense. But, whether a person thinks it's trivial or not is immaterial. It's against the law, and allowing it to go unpunished when observed sends the message that some laws are OK to violate.

Now people are aware that any violation is liable to send the offender to jail.

Howell also told the story of the Lorraine Village housing community, where residents were reporting shots fired almost every night. Howell toured the community with members of the Special Ops unit, interviewing residents and asking what they thought the problems were.

Almost all pointed t the densely overgrown property adjacent to the community as the biggest problem. The next day Howell had bulldozers from Public Works out clearing the area. The police built relationships in the community and people are far more likely to report crime now. Howell also said by interviewing the residents first, it allowed them to take ownership of the solution.

The results have been impressive. Following up months after the cleanup, he asked residents when the last time they heard gunshots at night. They couldn't remember.

Howell also told of the success of the saturation patrols program, in which the police hit the streets of an area in large numbers.

But these programs do come with a cost, he acknowledged. The prosecutor's office and the courts are suddenly hit with a large influx of relatively minor cases, and don't have the resources to handle them.

While the crime rate is down, Howell, said, there's a lot more that needs to be done, and the chief talked excitedly about a new program that will give local police access to recently retired military gear. Not tanks, he told the Rotarians with a laugh, but almost everything else, from weapons and radios to file cabinets.